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Reality Check

While we all struggle with playing and writing and trying to get our music heard, some musicians are struggling with problems of a completely different, much more diabolical nature. It’s a cultural phenomenon, to be sure, and not particular to rock and roll. But the form that this takes in the context of rock and roll can be especially sickening and perverse when musicians that are incapacitated by chronic drug problems play out their worst nightmares not only in the public arena, but onstage as well. It’s sickening to see these people have to live through these periods of their lives while under unrelenting public scrutiny and it’s perverse to see how they are aided and encouraged to do so by a music industry that is utterly lacking in any sort of compassion for these troubled artists.

The music industry has always been about selling music. It has never been about anything else. It is not some grand artists’ consortium or musicians club. It is a collection of bars, theaters, promoters, managers and record companies that are all attempting to derive profits from the production of live and recorded music. The people who run the establishments are only concerned with one thing -- what the artist can do for them. What they can do for the artist is only a byproduct of what the artist can do for them. For example, if an artist makes a record that becomes a hit, the record company makes money and the artist makes money. Everyone is happy, financially speaking. If the artist makes a record and it flops, the record company may drop the artist from it’s roster of acts. But the record company is always protecting itself, not the artist. When an artist makes a record for a major record label, the record company charges the artist for the production costs up front. What that means is that until the record makes enough to cover those charges, the artist makes not one penny for his work. If the production costs aren’t covered by the sales of the record, the artist is in debt to the record company. The record companies interest only lies in how much money they make, knowing that if they make money, the artist makes money. This is as much of an interest as they will ever take in any artist.

This is the environment all musicians must try to make a living in. It should be well understood by every musician who seeks commercial success that they must take care of themselves. Because what at first seems like a lark turns to grueling work soon enough. Schedules have to be maintained, deadlines must be met. Interviews, tour dates, personal appearances, yadda,yadda,yadda! And don’t forget that through all of this you still have to find it within yourself to be creative and innovative with your music. Pretty soon that golden road to unlimited self-fulfillment can turn into a highway to hell!

This is what success in the modern music industry can be like. And mega-success produces mega expectations in all the people that are there to "help" you succeed. Jerry Garcia (we will talk more about him later.) said once " Success sucks, and everything that goes with it!" John Lennon wrote a song for his last album (written and recorded after a five year hiatus from the music biz) called " Watching the

Wheels " in which he speaks of the joy of being out of the music biz and refers to being off the merry-go-round. The fact of the matter is, most artists who achieve mega-success end up feeling very ambivalent about what they have achieved. Better watch out what you wish for ‘cause you just might get it.

What this all results in is a very predictable predicament. The rock and roll life is an excessive one. Success produces excessive demands. Which leads to excessive behavior. Which, unfortunately, usually results in excessive drug use in order not only to relieve the stress of an excessive work schedule, but to meet the demands of that same schedule. Then just try to break the cycle at that point! Lennon talked about getting off the merry-go-round. But how do you extricate yourself from something that just keeps spinning faster and faster, all the while promising you more, better, bigger? Especially when you are still deluded by the innocent vision of the music biz as something that will set you free, compounded by not being able to think straight from the ever increasing and varied diet of drugs you now ingest?

The list of casualties is pretty damn long. Starting with numero uno, the King, Elvis himself. Who was there to help Elvis stop what he was doing? Colonel Tom Parker? Not likely that he would’ve wanted the cash cow to stop giving up the milk. So, maybe his "circle of friends"? Did he even have any real friends left in the crowd of sycophants, yes men, gold diggers and hustlers that surrounded him towards the end of his life? If he did, they were most likely powerless to stop the inertia at that point. Sometimes when you are driving down the path of self-destruction, roadblocks only slow you down. They don’t keep you from reaching your final destination.

The list continues on. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon, Jerry Garcia and many, many more. Those are only the most famous. And there is more to come, certainly. Because, for whatever reason, rock and roll loves a pathetic spectacle.

I’ll never forget the image of Elvis on TV from Hawaii; bloated beyond recognition, mumbling and stumbling around on stage virtually unable to perform while an audience blinded by adulation cheered his every off-balance karate move. What was he even doing on stage in that condition? What was the audience cheering for? Couldn’t they see what I was seeing, that he was, in fact, no longer Elvis? That up on that stage was a man in dire need of help, lots of help!

And what happened to Jerry Garcia? As a person, I was a Deadhead. As a songwriter and guitarist, Jerry was my guy. It was a particularly painful experience watching this guy decline right in front of my eyes. And to see his mighty guitar technique deteriorate to such an extent that by the last time I saw him play with the Dead in the summer of ‘94, he was essentially absent from the proceedings. Yes, he was on stage. But he had such little impact on the music that he may as well not have been. He couldn’t sing or play at all, anymore. At least not to the lofty standards that he had set for himself, or that I had come to expect. That was the last time I ever saw him play and I drove home with an awful feeling that Jerry would not survive much longer.

I asked myself many questions that night: "Why can’t the Dead just stop until Jerry gets better?", "Why can’t Jerry stop doing heroin?" (It was obvious that he was back on the stuff; he stayed in one place on the stage and barely moved, staring down at the floor, unless he was singing). Why, why, why?

And what about the Deadheads? Couldn’t they see Jerry was in trouble? It was frustrating for me talking to some of my friends after this horrendous show. Many of them said they thought Jerry seemed fine. I don’t think many Deadheads were really listening at that point. I think they were just going for the party. And as long as Jerry was up there, it was party time, regardless of how incapacitated he was by drug and health problems.

I also still don’t understand what kept a band like the Dead truckin’ on and on. Of course everyone in the Dead scene knew Jerry was in trouble, so why didn’t they just pull the plug, for Jerry’s sake? It would be sadly ironic if this proto-hippie group, espousing hippie ideals such as the rejection of the materialistic culture and boldly proclaiming themselves not to be (or become!) slaves of the almighty dollar, kept lurching along in pursuit of that same dollar. And yet, sadly again, this is probably the most likely explanation.

As sad as seeing Elvis and Jerry on stage was for me, the worst, most pathetic spectacle I have ever witnessed (and the catalyst for me to write this article) was very recently seeing Johnny Winter at the Fillmore.

Johnny Winter was unquestionably one of the greatest white Blues guitarists of all time, on a par with Eric Clapton and Steve Ray Vaughan. He just never attained their level of fame. But in his prime, he was amazing, fast and fluid, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the Blues styles and licks. And his slide playing was second to none. It was well known that he was also a heroin addict and that, in the last ten years, was not as capable as he had been. I had seen him play in 1994 at Slim’s in San Francisco and he did not seem to be in trouble at that point. He sang strongly and played well. He delivered the goods. He also seemed healthy; he was animated on stage and having fun.

So, Johnny Winter at the Fillmore sounded like great fun! My wife, her brother and I all headed up to the City excited to go be going to the show. We got to the Fillmore, had a few celebratory martinis and listened to the opening acts. As the time approached for Johnny Winter to come out, we jostled through the crowd and got close to the stage. We were psyched; c’mon Johnny, lay it on us! After the usual scampering and last minute tweaking by the roadies on stage, a wan, incredibly thin and frail ghost of a man in tee shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat was led up on the stage and out to the far left microphone. He was not escorted, he was being assisted physically by two good sized young men. He was obviously having trouble moving. He was not able to put his guitar on by himself, so a roadie lifted the strap over his head as he lifted two pale white matchsticks of arms into the air and the strap attached to his trademark Gibson Firebird was placed on his shoulder. As soon as he had the guitar on, he began absent-mindedly fingering the strings as he swayed from side to side (he swayed from side to side like a marionette throughout the entire show, whether the music was going or not). My wife and I were standing very close and the smell was unbelievable. It was a very particular odor, not just the stench of the terminally unwashed. This, my friends was the smell of death (ooh, that smell!) and it was emanating from the man in the spotlight. Ladies and gentlemen, the great Johnny Winter!

My wife and I stood there frozen in shock. We turned to each other with equally dreadful expressions of disbelief. The music started. I was amazed anyone in his condition could play at all, even if it was nothing more that rote and soulless playing. After the first song, the crowd went wild. My wife and I left our spot near the stage and, eventually, the auditorium altogether. We went out to the front lobby and sat on the bench there, while the festivities continued inside. We wanted to leave, both of us were afraid to go back in. We thought "This guy could die, any second!". But after debating the issues through about 3 more songs, we decided to go back in and make the best of it. We stayed in the bar through the rest of the show, all the while wondering how this could be going on. Who’s responsible for this? Didn’t the Fillmore people know what kind of shape he was in? What about his manager? How could he put this poor guy on tour? He shouldn’t be on stage, he should be in a hospital bed on a slow drip!

This was, without a doubt, the sickest, most perverse thing I ever witnessed in my life. Most people die before they ever get to the level Johnny Winter is at. I must confess, I do not know the reasons for his current condition. Is it heroin addiction? Is it something not self-inflicted, like Parkinson’s disease? Whatever the case, it is disgusting and sick to parade this shell of a man around like this and it’s almost fraudulent to sell tickets to his shows. That night, many people did leave the show in disgust. The people who stayed either enjoyed the spectacle or did so out of respect for what he once was. After the show, on the drive back home, there was nothing but silence. We were shocked and saddened, just how you want to feel after the Friday night Rock ‘n Roll show, right?

What conditions exist to make putting on a concert or continuing a career so desperate? I certainly do not know. But I just don’t see how, especially with someone in Johnny Winter’s predicament, that the show must go on. Personally, I think that people in the industry need to find a way to stop this sort of spectacle from occurring. And I think that the business people that run the music biz need to care more about their acts as people, not just as what they can contribute to the bottom line.

It’s so easy for a rock musician to end up in this kind of shape. It’s too easy, really. From the ease of obtaining any old dope you want (which is no different than it is in any other realm of society) to the demands placed on an artist these days, to the culture of celebration that surrounds the production of modern music (and that makes the use of drugs de riguer for every occasion) it’s not an easy trap to avoid falling into. But what is especially evil is when the whole rock and roll money machine, from manager to promoter to record company, gets behind an artist who is obviously sick and in trouble. One who is having trouble even getting to the the gig, who is too sick or strung out to even be able to do a decent impression of himself onstage.

Aren’t people’s lives more important?

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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